Anne Carson's Nox
New Directions, 2010.
1 folded sheet pages, $29.95 (cloth box).
"In cigarette-smoke-soaked Copenhagen, under a wide thin sorrowful sky, as swans drift down the water, I am looking a long time into the muteness of my brother. It resists me. He refused to be 'cooked' (a modern historian might say) in my transactional order. To put it this way, there is something that facts lack. 'Overtakelessness' is a word told me by a philosopher once: das Unumgängliche—that which cannot be got round. Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of. And about which one collects facts—it remains beyond them." These words by poet Anne Carson consume this haunting monument for her brother who died unexpectedly in 2000—died a second time, like Lazarus, as she observes, for he disappeared almost totally from family life twenty-two years before, having run away from his girlfriend Anna's death [presumably of epilepsy]—the great love of his life who died while he was in jail ("I have never known a closeness like that . . . I went crazy" he says in the only letter to his mother).
It's 1978, he's also on the run from unexplained troubles with the law, traveling under false passports in India and across Europe, living homeless, marrying twice, and eventually changing his name. We know little else, except for the minimal content of the few phone calls he placed to his sister over the decades, that one letter, Carson's poignant reminisces of their childhood and her interpretations of his dysfunctions, and finally the surprising call from his widow and Carson's visit to Copenhagen to visit her.
Carson heard from Michael only five times in all those years, always out-of-the-blue, and always a conversation minimal in its content, mysterious in its lacunae. But her love for her brother, and seemingly his for her, was intense—and his surprise death left her alone with many questions that perhaps she had hoped one would day be answered. Michael must have adored his younger sister, admired her brilliancy and stride calling her affectionately "pinhead" and "professor," although she reflects "What he needed from me I have no idea." In their conversations he had virtually nothing to say, "His voice was like his voice with something crusted on it, black, dense . . ." But "it lighted up for a moment when he said 'pinhead' then went dark again." She prints this text in bold face to emphasize Michael's questioning intensity: So pinhead d'you attain wisdom yet?
Nox (Greek Nyx) is the primordial gorgeous, powerful goddess of night standing near Creation's edge and giving birth to death and sleep. Layered definitions weave through the poem, for nox is also a scientific term for 1/1,000 of a lux—a unit of luminance in photometry measuring the intensity the human eye perceives as light hits or passes through a surface. Carson's book moves across a landscape of shadows and questions, water and torn and pasted fragments of that letter, and Carson's memories of her always lonely brother—who even as a boy couldn't seem to find a place in the peripatetic life of his banker father.
As an object, Nox is tomb, is monument, but nevertheless alive with the collages Carson assembles in her determination to grieve, but also to raise up Michael's spirit and to come to terms with his invisibility, his secret history. This is of course a challenge for which a creator like Carson is made. Her attraction to the fragmentary, the oblique, the archaeology of the mind and language, is legendary. I've written about it in Oyster Boy before [issues 9 & 14]. Carson, a classicist, knows how to ferret out essence from what remains, and with affection, grace, and a stilled and steely gaze wring infinite emotion and eroticism from a process that seems factual, detached, impassive, disconnected, and isolate. In works such as Eros the Bittersweet, If Not Winter (her Sappho translations), The Beauty of the Husband (a poetic telling of the collapse of a marriage), The Economy of the Unlost (her study of Paul Celan and Simonides of Ceos and the poetics of negativity), and Glass, Irony, and God, Carson transforms aloof curiosity into a kind of keening ecstasy. Nox, beside her many other works of moving genius, is her masterpiece.
Like her previous works, Nox seems Grecian, archaic, and yet utterly contemporary—utterly inventive. A tomb, a coffin, a sarcophagus. The book, if you can call it that, is an accordion-fold document within a grey-stone colored clam-shell box—a near perfect scanned facsimile of the singular notebook Carson created to help her investigate the mystery of Michael, her grief, and the vagaries of personal history. Even the staples seem almost real, the ghost-like images of the reverse of pages through the scanner's light, the texture of the crinkle and sometimes torn or pencil-struck papercover, and the three-dimensionality of the crude but affecting art work. It's a collage of family photographs; fragments from Michael's letter; stamps from the letter and a few postcards; an undeliverable letter from their mother to Michael; pieces of conversations with Michael, his mother, and his wife; reflections on Herodotus; phrases lifted from previous poems and other authors such as Beckett and Virginia Woolf; and awkward handmade art formed of pencil smudges, slivers of photographs, and crumpled papercover (one with a crude drawing of a laid out body). The reproduction, and the conceit of the lengthy accordion which fights you and falls and wants to slip askew, is so real one can't help feeling that Carson is sitting next to you, turning through her heart-breaking notebook with you. The discomfiture of holding it, opening this coffin, parallels the experience of loss, grief, the search for clues to something of "Overtakeless" resistance, and the compulsion to put order, solution, peace and closure, onto the slippery, the forsaken, the heartbreaking.
But the great power of this work spins on the relationship between the left and right hand pages of each spread. The book opens with Catullus' elegy for his dead brother, Poem 101, which Carson has struggled with most of her life to successfully translate. And so the left hand pages parse every word with entries from a Latin dictionary, and builds finally near the end to a tongue-tied, but whole, and wholly beautiful translation. Yet even this lexicon hides poetry—near the end of each entry a minimalist poem of night, nox, of gloom and loss appears, insinuated by Carson into the text like dictionary usage illustrations. These bits of rubble construct a Greek chorus, an elegy within an elegy within an elegy, amplifying the book's keening atmosphere.
Carson's translation of Poem 101 strives for what she deems impossible—a "Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all of its leaves over, in the wind. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of Poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends." Carson's desire stated early on was to fill her "elegy with light of all kinds." She does, but her subject is stubborn, and the light is only as substantive as in Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in." We receive glimmers and shadows. Ghosts. And possibilities, but never the open window, the fulsome day of bright sun.
Carson, however, finds her understanding through the Via Negativa. One telling moment in Nox stands for her grim reaping of Michael's unreliable history: "When my brother died his dog got angry, stayed angry, barking, growling, lashing, glaring, by day and night. He went to the door, he went to the window, he would not lie down. My brother's widow, it is said, took the dog to the church on the day of the funeral. Buster goes right up to the front of Sankt Johannes and raises himself on his paws on the edge of the coffin and as soon as he smells the fact, his anger stops. 'To be nothing—is that not, after all, the most satisfactory fact in the whole world?' asks a dog in a novel I read once (Virginia Woolf Flush 87). I wonder what the smell of nothing is. Smell of autopsy."
Carson is denied that moment of olfactory closure. She misses the funeral, but is able to meet Michael's widow, visits the church, and has a report of the service. She misses the tossing of his ashes near the castle of Helsinor. Yes, the "Elsinore" of Hamlet.
Another page, midstream, so moving and sad includes this brief report about how it took Michael's widow two weeks to find Carson's phone number, and this: "While I swept my porch and bought apples and sat by the window in the evening with the radio on, his death came wandering slowly towards me across the sea." And then at the bottom of the page, this: "Something inbetween, something so deeply swaying."
However knotty our deathly passage, Carson does find "deep festivity" and shares it with us, creating in Nox not only a dazzling eulogy in words, but a funereal object of frank generosity.